The Wit and Wisdom of the Mafia


 By Selwyn Raab




Vincent “The Chin” Gagante, a New York Mafioso notorious for wandering the streets of New York in his bathrobe, simulating madness.






Carmine Galante, a Bonanno family potentate gunned down while lunching at a restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn.



The Wit and Wisdom of the Mafia


By Selwyn Raab


Forty plus years of plumbing the wit and wisdom of the Mafia was a cinch – a  piece of cake. An uncomplicated subject with few obstacles. No need to evade spin physicians bent on misleading a reporter trying to unravel the significance of an important event – mass murders or a racketeering arrest. Happily, Men of Honor have too many scruples to employ public relations experts who deluge a reporter with worthless tips, press releases, bothersome telephone calls and e-mails.

As for incisive interviews, don't bother applying. Most accused mobsters, especially the family aristocrats, are steadfast recluses, denying they possess articulate gifts. I almost got an exclusive comment from John Gotti before he was convicted of being the CEO in the Gambino crime family. It was in a courthouse men's room. I extended good luck wishes and asked for an interview about his ongoing trial. Two goons were aiding his ablutions, turning the water taps and holding a linen towel. With a gimlet stare, the dapper don dried his hands, brushing past me without acknowledging my presence. 


Another approach occurred on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. I attempted to chat with Vincent "Chin" Gigante whose relatives insisted that he was a mentally distressed, punch drunk ex boxer, not the underworld titan of the Genovese crime family. Two beefy companions of Mr. Gigante almost trampled me as I scurried to safety.


I did squeeze a memorable rejoinder from James Failla in the 1990s while researching a story about his role as the Gambino family's  not-so-secret controller of the city's private garbage carting industry. Known as Jimmy Brown for favoring that sartorial shade, I intercepted him on his way to a weekly meeting with supplicant carting contractors. Failla  uncoiled a terse rejection:" Eat (an expletive rhyming with hit.)"


Covering Cosa Nostra means you're on your own. All that is required is perseverance and a disregard for insults. I stumbled into the beat through a side door. In the 1960s, I was handling sedate education stories on the old World Telegram and The Sun when a school construction scandal erupted. There was stark evidence of crumbling roofs, shoddy work and renovations that endangered the safety of thousands of students and teachers. Combing the backgrounds of the building-trades companies unearthed a pattern of phantom investors, rigged bids and bribes to school officials. Much of the malfeasance was engineered by behind-the-scenes Mafiosi.


Later as a reporter for the Telly, WNBC, PBS, and The Times, I kept running across Cosa Nostra fingerprints on numerous aspects of government, law enforcement, the judicial system, unions and everyday life. It required little sagacity to determine that, by the 1970s, the Mafia operated a surrogate state in the New York metropolitan area. Unfortunately, for much of the 20th Century New York's governmental authorities were largely indifferent to these criminal inroads. The majority of media editors were of a similar mind. They preferred reporting on the occasional sensational homicides, internecine wise guy wars and colorful gangster celebrities in place of costly, long-range inquiries to document the Mafia's economic clout and manipulation of government agencies.


At The Times, which I joined in 1974 to cover criminal justice and governmental misdeeds, the Mafia was generally regarded as an unrewarding assignment. It was viewed by most reporters as a career dead-end with scant prospects for landing plum promotions. I inherited the beat with the proviso that I would pursue non-Mafia investigative stories and that mob reporting would focus on their stranglehold over vital economic interests. It was a wide arena, including the construction industry, union racketeering, garbage carting, the Garment Center and the Fulton Fish Market.

In a pre-computer age nailing down a story often meant sisyphean hours of locating documents, transcripts of bugged conversations, judicial transcripts, business, real estate and government records. As one example, I spent an entire month sifting through thousands of handwritten index cards compiled by the federal Housing and Urban Development Department tracing mob-linked subcontractors on multimillion-dollar housing projects in the Bronx.


The easy part of the Mafia saga is waiting for arrests and relying on the customary spin from prosecutors and investigators. The reconstruction of a major undercover case can be intriguing but it is one dimensional. Lawyers for accused Mafiosi are equally predictable, normally spouting uninspired, boilerplate denials.


Uncovering background material to flesh out the culture, motivation, tactics and underlying sociopathic elements of the American Mafia was the ultimate challenge. After all, the Cosa Nostra prides itself as being a secret society and most efforts to mingle with their stalwarts were rebuffed. Fortunately, persistence can pay off.


One dividend came from Anthony Accetturo, the admitted head of the Lucchese family in New Jersey in the 1980s and 1990s. In his teens, Accetturo used a crutch to batter opponents and was dubbed "Tumac," after a ferocious caveman in a film, "One Million BC." Upon learning that his new bosses wanted to whack him, Tumac defected, suddenly eager to recount his experiences and explain why he had switched sides. A friendly New Jersey official arranged prison interviews with Accetturo and "Tumac" provided rare insight and scoops about the history and the strength and weaknesses of the American Mafia.

New York Times style rule was strangely converted into another penetration of the Mafia's clandestine curtain. Soon after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, his Secretary of Labor, Raymond Donovan, was enmeshed in an investigation of whether his construction company had illegally awarded a lucrative subcontract for a subway project to a mob-tainted outfit in the Bronx headed by Pellegrino Masselli. A trial on state felony charges ended with acquittals for Donovan and Masselli.

During the marathon legal process, Masselli was branded in hundreds of print and broadcast stories by his underworld nickname "Butcher Boy." The one exception was The Times which banned pejorative sobriquets. Therefore, my reports always referred to him with the honorific," Mr. Masselli."  It resulted in a call from Masselli showering me with praise for "respecting" him. Eventually, it led to a deal for secret meetings at which he provided anonymous amplifications about contemporary Mafia matters, mores and attitudes.

The invaluable arrangement lasted until Masselli died (of natural causes). Naturally, I never disclosed that it was a style rule that prevented me from referring to him in print as "Butcher Boy."

Fortune smiled again when I landed a contract to co-author "Mob Lawyer" with Frank Ragano. Over 40 years, he had been the attorney and confidante of Santo Trafficante, the Mafia boss in Florida, and Carlos Marcello, the Cosa Nostra chief in New Orleans. As an added bonus Ragano was Jimmy Hoffa's trial attorney and admitted conduit between the teamster's union president and his Mafia partners.

In addition to the secrets we published in "Mob Lawyer," Ragano provided a cornucopia of details on the shadowy lives of mob barons that I used in countless stories.

Dining in mob-favored restaurants can result in succulent meals and unusual encounters. At Lanza's on First Avenue in the East Village, I established nodding relationships with low-level soldiers and a non-Mafia head waiter. In July 1979, Lanza's lost a valued customer when Carmine Galante, a Bonanno family potentate was gunned down while lunching at another restaurant in Brooklyn.

Covering Galante's funeral at the Lanza-Provenzano Funeral Home on Second Avenue, I discovered that the funeral director was non other than the head waiter at Lanza's Restaurant. What greater proof of the dedication inspired by Mafia mystique: a head waiter who served wise guys in life as well as in death.



table of contents